Dancers’ Studio West’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival Showcases Exciting Talent

Presented at the Pumphouse Theatre, Dancers’ Studio West’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival is a showcase of both emerging and established Canadian dance talent. This year, the dance festival is titled “Dance & The Image.” Nine choreographers workshopped their respective dance pieces over the course of a seven-day Creative Intensive with direction provided by the company’s artistic director, Davida Monk, and the Dance Action Group.

In this second week of the festival, six choreographers and their dancers take to the stage to present choreography influenced by various works of art.

First in the showcase is Choreographer Serenella Sol’s “Hollyhocks and Cacti,” an abstract piece that plays with the notion of female archetypes. Underscoring Sol’s piece are recited lines of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” which play over the speakers. Valentia Dimitriou and Kimberly Powley, Sol’s two dancers in this piece, go on to embody various archetypes, like the Seductress.

Choreographer Serenella Sol's Hollyhocks and Cacti. Dancers: Valentia Dimitriou (front), Kimberly Powley (back). Phototographer: Tim Nguyen

Choreographer Serenella Sol’s Hollyhocks and Cacti. Dancers: Valentia Dimitriou (front), Kimberly Powley (back). Phototographer: Tim Nguyen

As the piece goes on, however, there is a moment of rejection where the two dancers remove their dresses and show disgust towards them. We are left to wonder: what are they rejecting? If we accept dresses to be signifiers of femininity, then perhaps that is what the two dancers are rejecting: socially normalized ways of performing femininity. In only their body suits, the two dancers appear to find freedom and individuality; they no longer belong to any particular archetype.The act of rejection, then, can be taken as an act of defiance. This idea of defiance is supported by these lines of Angelou’s poem “You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise” which Sol’s piece closes on.

In the following piece, choreographer Oriana Pagnotta continues on the topic of femininity, specifically the everyday experience of women, with her piece “We Aren’t Always in Pieces.”

From the beginning, Pagnotta, performing in her own piece, Eva Biro, and Lindsay Oehlerking generate a strong sense of uneasiness. They move about the stage frantically with exaggerated, physical movements where they sometimes hit themselves with their arms. The dancers repeat phrases like “don’t cry” and “don’t breathe,” which they then answer back with “I won’t.” We gather that there is more to the anxious quality of the piece.

What Pagnotta’s piece culminates to is a commentary on the way society at large frames violence against women. The instructions repeated over and over again speak to negative attitudes toward female victims that hold them exclusively responsible for their own safety, that if only they had done “the right thing” they could have avoided being battered and/or sexually assault. The frantic, uneasy movement of Pagnotta’s dancers, in effect, come to be understood as discomfort of being in one’s own skin, of being forced to believe that they are the problem, and they do not belong to the space which they occupy.

Pagnotta’s piece hits hard as she successfully conveys through movement and a choice selection of words a powerful and relevant message to her audience.

Choreographed by Chelci Blais, Quinn Kliewer, and Sisa Madrid, “Seiten” – the third piece of the showcase – stages a critique of media and consumerism. In this piece, newspapers fill the stage. Dancers Kelsey Clement, Valentia Dimitriou, Emily Henley, Raine Kearns, and Tessa Mark each sit with their fair share of newspapers. However, a frenzied competition and control of the newspapers overtakes the dancers. They fight each other, tearing newspapers in the process, until they achieve satisfaction. But what is enough? At what point does one have enough? The question is lost to the dancers, but brought to our attention by the choreographers.

“Seiten” is a smart, fun piece. The dancers bring plenty of expression and vigor to their movement. Even in the chaos of newspaper being torn and thrown around, the dancers manage to keep the choreography tight. Blais, Kliewer, and Madrid also do well to make clear their narrative and views on the effects of consumerism. The piece ends with a surprise where the dancers reach a resolution – by way of an act of kindness through sharing – only to have a bundle of newspapers drop downstage. (The cycle begins anew).

The showcase’s final piece is Pamela Tzeng’s “to be or not to be: A Very Important Verb (Part 1).” Here, Tzeng struggles to make peace between her Canadian and Chinese identities.

The piece begins playfully with Tzeng listening to a “How to Speak Mandarin (Chinese)” learning tape. Tzeng attempts the various common phrases the instructor guides her through, but fails. Then, moving beyond sound, Tzeng tries to look Chinese. She manipulates her face, sculpting it to read as Chinese. The most striking change Tzeng makes is removing the round appearance of her eyes. But as she goes on, we can see that Tzeng realizes the futility of her efforts.

The futility of Tzeng’s efforts to embody (signifers of) foreigness leads to a heavy frustration. Tzeng’s frustration nears higher levels when she cannot fit her head through a traditional Chinese dress. But then, Tzeng, now undressed, lays the dress over her body and pretends that she, perhaps for once, is finally Chinese. The joy Tzeng expresses is great. Tzeng proceeds to lose herself in a delightful dance with a red umbrella. The act of appearing Chinese suffices for Tzeng. But then the conflict between her two identities resurfaces, leading to a frightening madness where Tzeng’s frustration is finally too much for her.

Choreographer/Dancer Pamela Tzeng, after the show.

Choreographer/Dancer Pamela Tzeng, after the show.

Tzeng does a good job of exploring questions of cultural identity. Is belonging to a culture simply speaking the language and looking the part, or is there more? And for those with two cultures, how does one reconcile the differences between that of their origins and their host? Is it truly a matter of one over the other? As this is only a 10-minute excerpt of the final product, it will be interesting to see what conclusions, if any, Tzeng comes to at the Fluid Movements Arts Festival where the piece is set to premiere.

But the experience of the festival is marred by the noise travelling from the neighboring room into the performance space. Loud conversations and laughter remove us from the intimacy of certain moments throughout the showcase. Hopefully, the company will resolve this issue for future performances.

Ultimately, however, the DSW’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival succeeds. The talent of the dancers is impressive. But it is the clarity of the choreographers who demand us to listen to what they have to say that truly capture our attention. It will be interesting to see what the choreographers do next in their artistic journeys.


Dancers’ Studio West’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival – Dance & The Image ran from September 11-13, 18-20, 2014.

For more information about DSW’s upcoming season, visit: http://www.dswlive.ca

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